A Digital Humanities Tenure Case, Part 2: Letters and Committees

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After my tenure presentation and with the unanimous vote of my department, my department’s RPT committee and our chair prepared additional letters to send the file up the food chain to the college-level promotion and tenure committee. These letters were embarrassingly favorable, and based on the excerpts they included from outside readers, those letters too offered overwhelming support for tenure. The college-level committee, however, wasn’t so easily fooled. Voting 10-2 in favor of my case, largely on the basis of my monograph in French history, here’s what the committee members had to report on the digital side of my portfolio:

The committee also recognized his considerable work at the Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media as it relates to projects such as Zotero and the substantial funds he and his collaborators have raised to help sustain them. Some on the committee questioned to what degree Dr. Takats’ [sic] involvement in these activities constitutes actual research (as opposed to project management). Hence, some determined that projects like Zotero et al., while highly valuable, should be considered as major service activity instead.

To recap: Conceive projects? Service. Develop prototype software? Service. Write successful grant proposals? Service. Write code? Service. Lead developers and designers? Service. Disseminate the results of the project? Service. I certainly hope program officers from Mellon, Sloan, IMLS, and NEH aren’t reading this post, because I suspect they would be more than a little dismayed to discover that they’ve been funding “major service activity.”

Levity aside, I want to focus on the committee’s disregard for project management, because it’s here I think that we find evidence of a much broader communication breakdown between DH and just-H, despite the best efforts to develop reasonable standards for evaluating digital scholarship.

Although the committee’s letter effectively excludes “project management” from consideration as research, I would argue that it’s actually the cornerstone of all successful research. It’s project management that transforms a dissertation prospectus into a thesis, and it’s certainly project management that shepherds a monograph from proposal to published book. Fellow humanists, I have some news for you: you’re all project managers, even if you only direct a staff of one.

Reductio ad absurdum aside, why this disparagement? One colleague of mine suggests that this neglect of lab work is the inevitable result of my university’s decision in 2006 to cleave off the College of Science from the Humanities and Social Sciences. As a result, our college committee is highly unlikely to include many members who have lab experience. Because that sort of collaborative, multi-layered work is unfamiliar, it gets lumped in my case under the category of “service,” which — let’s not kid ourselves — is nothing more than academia’s equivalent of “other.”

More generally speaking it’s clear that this college committee views “research” through a narrower lens than does our own faculty handbook. There you’ll find a qualitative component that’s admirably broad in scope:

Scholarly achievement is demonstrated by original publications and peer reviewed contributions to the advancement of the discipline/field of study or the integration of the discipline with other fields; by original research, artistic work, software and media, exhibitions, and performance; and by the application of discipline- or field-based knowledge to the practice of a profession.

And the handbook also suggests a degree of quantitative assessment: “There should be evidence that the candidate’s contributions have significant influence on colleagues at other institutions in this country, and where applicable, abroad.”

College committee members, in contrast, considered only my peer-reviewed traditional publication to count as research. Of course, digital work often goes through many stages of peer-review: at the funding stage, with published reviews and awards for the finished project, and in my case through the solicitation of formal assessments of my corpus by peers. And its potential for significant influence on colleagues at other institutions is often orders of magnitude greater than that offered by traditional publications. In the eyes of committee members, however, this sort of review and impact should not count at all. And notably, the committee makes no effort to describe what sort of digital work in my portfolio (or not in it) would merit consideration.

The chilling effect of this stance can’t be overstated: by suggesting that my digital work should not count as research, they’re effectively claiming that no one’s digital work should count. Why? Because my tenure portfolio includes contributions at nearly every conceivable level of digital scholarship, from principal investigator all the way to coder. Much well-founded concern exists within the digital humanities about whether scholarly credit is shared equitably among contributors — we find Bethany Nowviskie in the JDH and the Faircite project more broadly fearing a scenario where the pie is carved up only for the benefit of project leaders. But what if there is no pie? If we’re going to limit ourselves to using traditional modes of scholarly dissemination as a proxy for “research” at RRCHNM’s home institution, then we send a powerful signal discouraging digital research projects elsewhere, at any level.

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